A Brand for social justice

Dipanjan Chatterjee and Xiaofeng Wang

Dipanjan leads Forrester’s brand strategy practice. His recent research delves into brand strategies and experiences fuelled by the customer of the future, who is both defining and being defined by ever-expanding technology frontiers. Xiaofeng, a principal analyst, helps B2C professionals develop effective digital marketing and omnichannel engagement strategies for the Asia-Pacific market.

In 2020, brands did something they’d never done before: They spoke up about race.

For some, like Ben & Jerry’s and Microsoft, this came naturally; they had long-standing programs to advance social justice. In June, when the spotlight turned to racial justice, these brands communicated at length their commitments and actions to promote greater equity.

In Asia-Pacific, beauty brand, Fresh, and Swedish timepiece brand, Daniel Wellington, ended partnerships with Singaporean influencer, Xiaxue, because of her racist remarks. For most brands schooled in avoiding issues with a whiff of politics, discomfort was palpable. But they had little choice.

The pressure on brands to speak up is being exerted not only by protesters on the streets but also by a broader shift in customer and employee attitudes. Sixty per cent of the US population and 78 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 expect brands to take a stand on racial justice. Consumers vote with their wallets, employees with their feet: 50 per cent of LGBTQ+, 45 per cent of racial and ethnic minorities, and 39 per cent overall have chosen not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion.

In Australia, the movement is picking up steam too. Among aspects of corporate responsibility that drive purchase, a commitment to supporting diverse racial and ethnic groups is of most importance to one in 10 consumers. And 12 per cent of local consumers rate gender equality as the top corporate responsibility purchase driver.

As neutrality evaporates, brands are responding in three ways:

Signalling intent through internal channels (take Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella’s email to employees) and external channels (Nike’s ‘Don’t Do It’ video). US TV ad spend on racial justice messaging in June alone was well over five times what it was in 2018 and 2019 combined. In a category now under tremendous scrutiny, Unilever’s Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever, maker of Fair & Lovely, is attempting to message its way out of trouble by removing references to words like fair, light and white, even renaming its signature product, Glow & Lovely.

Brands flex their muscles. For example, they write big cheques (Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, gave $120 million to historically black colleges), or use immense buying power to demand supply chains gets behind equity (Procter & Gamble).

They change something integral about the way they operate. Take advertising agency, Wieden+Kennedy, which announced it didn’t want staff or clients that don’t support Black Lives Matter. Sephora committed to reserving 15 per cent of shelf space for black-owned brands, while Johnson & Johnson stopped selling skin-whitening creams in Asia and the Middle East.

Build from within

A brand strategy to address social justice is much more than marketing. It is about expressing who you are, what that means for your stakeholders, and the implications for your actions. This is the stuff brand equity is made of. Coca-Cola CEO, James Quincey, didn’t shy away from acknowledging his role in the most significant employment discrimination case in US history. He then used the clean slate to lay out a program for the future.

But taking a stand on social justice should be informed by a careful assessment of your values. Unless you’re Patagonia or Salesforce, you’ve probably got a fair bit of figuring out to do.

Start by articulating what values your brand should consider sacrosanct. If you’ve done work on purpose or core values, this is an excellent time to dig that out. Think of this as defining the character of the brand and letting the actions flow from there. Who do you want to be to your customers and employees? 

Once you iron out your values, put on your tactical hat. The more distributed your operations, the higher likelihood of things going wrong when you have to respond. Simulate scenarios playing out in real time all around you. For example, what would you do if your employees wore Black Lives Matter masks (a Taco Bell employee was fired then reinstated)?

Tackle issues of justice and equity with the same rigour used to solve a business-critical problem like product development or channel strategies. If you don’t, none of those other things may matter. 

Tags: Forrester Research, brand strategy, marketing strategy

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